Mount Tianti is part of the Qilian Mountains in the Hexi Corridor, steep and hard to climb.
The grotto at Mount Tianti is possibly the earliest grotto in Chinese history.
Today, about hundreds of square metres of murals, 17 Buddhist niches, and over 100 Buddha statues are preserved here.
The word “grotto” does not just refer to murals and statues. It also refers to caves carved out of the cliffs, as temporary shelter for travelling monks, or a place of worship for the monks.
As the making of statues was not advocated by Gautama Buddha, Buddha statues did not appear in ancient India for a long time.
Pagodas, the wheel of dharma, footprints, and other symbols were used instead.
Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, invaded the East.
He also brought the art of sculpture-making from ancient Greece.
Gandhara was an ancient state in the northeast of ancient India.
Artisans there applied the Greek sculpture-making techniques to making Buddhist statues.
About 600 years after Gautama Buddha passed away, statues of him appeared.
He was often depicted as: oval-shaped face, high nose bridge, curly hair, and wearing a Greek-style tunic draped over one shoulder.
Eventually, sculptors introduced giant Buddha statues into grottoes, which were traditionally used for meditations.
From the second century CE to the third century CE, the ancient Silk Road was a busy route.
Merchant caravans carried silk, precious gems, and spices.
Buddhist monks also used the route to spread Buddhist beliefs.
Ancient China was going through a chaotic period during the Wei, Jin, and Northern Dynasties.
Officials and civilians alike were in a state of confusion.
This was when Buddhist monks came into ancient China.
Kumārajīva was one of the monks who entered through the Hexi Corridor.
When it came to of Buddhist text translation in China, Kumārajīva was the acknowledged doyen.
Kumārajīva was born in the kingdom of Kucha in the Western Regions.
His father was the descendant of a noble line, who migrated from ancient India to the Western Regions. His mother was the younger sister of the king of Kucha.
No one knows who the first monk that arrived at Kucha was, where he came from, or when he came to Kucha.
All we know is that the residents of Kucha accepted Buddhism quickly, once it was introduced into their country.
They started to create grottoes on a large scale, and soon, the kingdom of Kucha became an important Buddhist centre.
When Kumārajīva was seven years old, he and his mother both took the tonsure and became Buddhists.
When Kumārajīva was twelve years old, the precocious young monk was already giving lectures about Buddhism. Believers and kings gathered to listen to him.
His renown soon spread, and many countries extended invitations to him, asking him to be their national advisor.
Later, Kumārajīva became the national advisor of Kucha, and his name reached the Central Plain.
His mother once told him that he was destined to go to the East to spread Buddhism, and the journey would be filled with challenges.
But neither his mother nor Kumārajīva himself could have foreseen the trials and tribulations waiting for him.
General Lv Guang of Former Qin stationed an army at Liangzhou in the Hexi Corridor. There, he established the state of Later Liang.
Residents at Liangzhou would often witness a strange sight: a monk from the Western Region was being followed around by a group of soldiers no matter where he went.
The monk was Kumārajīva.
The soldiers were there to monitor him.
Before the collapse of Former Qin, Lv Guang was ordered by the king of Former Qin to take Kumārajīva out of Kucha.
Kumārajīva was forty years old at the time.
To Lv Guang, Kumārajīva was nothing more than a special trophy of war.
Based on records in Memoirs of Eminent Monks (written by a Buddhist monk Hui Jiao around 530 CE), Lv Guang forced Kumārajīva to marry the princess of Kucha (Lv Guang forced the monk to drink wine and got him drunk), and forced Kumārajīva to ride an untamed cow or horse in public.
Kumārajīva took these humiliations in his stride. Even Lv Guang was ashamed of himself.
Lv Guang set out rules for Kumārajīva. He could not stay outside for long, nor could he walk too far away from his house. Lv Guang detained Kumārajīva in Liangzhou for 17 years.
Lv Guang kept Kumārajīva like a caged bird.
Deprived of his freedom, Kumārajīva often pondered how he would still fulfil his mission of spreading Buddhism to the Central Plain.
He started small, by talking about Buddhism with people around him—the soldiers who were sent to spy on him.
Even if just one more person could convert to Buddhism, he would have done something worthwhile.
Kumārajīva noticed that the soldiers came from different places in the Central Plain. They spoke many different dialects.
While he imparted Buddhist teachings to the soldiers, Kumārajīva also learnt various dialects from them.
The 17 years of captivity allowed Kumārajīva to build a better understanding of cultures in the Central Plain. He could read and write Chinese well, preparing him for his eventual work of translating Buddhist texts into Chinese.
Yao Xing, king of the state of Later Qin, sent 100,000 troops to attack Liangzhou.
Yao Xing invited the 58-year-old Kumārajīva to Chang’an.
Buddhism had already started to appear in China during the last years of the Han Dynasty. But the society of ancient China was organised according to Confucian principles. Emperors and civilians alike felt that Confucius already had a comprehensive way to think about the world and how it was supposed to work. It wasn’t necessary to learn about foreign schools of thought.
Then came the Sixteen Kingdoms period, when ethnic minority groups took over control of the Central Plain. Endless wars and an uncertain future caused pain and suffering to the common people, who were struggling to understand the meaning of existence in such a world.
At the same time, the new rulers who’d come from the north grew up with the law of the jungle and believed in survival of the fittest. They found it hard to swallow the Confucian teachings of hierarchy, loyalty, and filial piety.
Rulers and the ruled both were seeking a new value system, and a new set of answers.
In Chang’an, the capital of Later Qin, Yao Xing built a place for Kumārajīva to give lectures on Buddhism.
Thousands of people would come to listen to his lectures.
Kumārajīva told Yao Xing that he wanted to start translating Buddhist texts.
Yao Xing agreed, and set up an office in Chang’an dedicated for the translation of Buddhist scriptures. He also selected 800 monks to aid Kumārajīva in his work. The office became the first large scale government-organised translation office in China.
Kumārajīva developed a glossary of key Buddhist terminologies. Scriptures translated by him eventually became the founding texts of various schools of Buddhism in China.
The famous saying, “Form is empty; emptiness is form”, came from the Heart Sutra translated by him.
Scriptures translated by him continued to be in use for over 1,600 years, without any addition or change by others.
Xuanzang (the monk in Journey to the West was based on him),
and Bukong were collectively known as the Five Masters of Translation. Three of the masters had been to the Hexi Corridor. Kumārajīva was the earliest.
Kumārajīva’s influence extended far beyond Buddhism.
Words like trouble (烦恼 “fannao”), the sea of endless suffering (苦海“kuhai”), future (未来 “weilai”), the field of one’s heart (心田 “xintian”), and the river of lover (爱河 “aihe”) were all coined by Kumārajīva.
They’ve become part of our everyday vocabulary.
Ten years after Kumārajīva left Liangzhou, Juqu Mengxun, a Xiongnu warrior, led his tribe and attacked Liangzhou.
He unified the Hexi Corridor, and established the state of Northern Liang.
Juqu Mengxun had once met Kumārajīva in Lv Guang’s palace, and vowed to promote Buddhism.
Juqu Mengxun organised the translation of Buddhist texts, set up schools, and recruited talents.
Kumārajīva was already in Chang’an. But Juqu Mengxun heard that a monk named Dharmakṣema had come to the Hexi Corridor from ancient India. The monk had also brought an ancient Buddhist text written on the bark of birch. It was called the Nirvana Sutra.
Juqu Mengxun invited Dharmakṣema to Liangzhou.
Tan Yao, a Buddhist monk and an architect, was one of Dharmakṣema’s students. He studied the translated text of the Nirvana Sutra, which mentioned that meditation was an important way to practice Buddhism.
Soon, meditation became popular in Liangzhou.
But the practice required a quiet and isolated place.
Juqu Mengxun started preparations to build a grand grotto at the Qilian Mountains.
Dharmakṣema and his students went to Mount Tianti.
Juqu Mengxu asked Tan Yao to build a 5-metre-tall statue of his mother who’d just passed away.
Years later, Tan Yao would travel to modern-day Datong and build the world-famous Yungang Grottoes (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
70-year-old Kumārajīva passed away in Chang’an.
Before he died, he said that if there were no mistakes in his translations, he wished that his tongue would remain intact after cremation.
His body turned to dust, but his tongue remained, and it became a śarīra (Buddhist relic).
It is kept in a pagoda in the Kumārajīva Temple in Wuwei.
Juqu Mengxun received news that the crown prince had died during a battle in the neighbouring country.
The furious Juqu Mengxu blamed the defeat and his son’s death on Dharmakṣema, as the divination done by Dharmakṣema before the army set off showed an auspicious result.
Juqu Mengxu said Buddhism was useless, and ordered the monks to be dismissed.
Dharmakṣema was worried that once the king turned against Buddhism, all the work he had done to build up Buddhism here would be all for naught.
After praying to the Buddha statue, Dharmakṣema sent word to Juqu Mengxu that something mysterious had appeared at the Mount Tianti Grotto.
Juqu Mengxu came.
Dharmakṣema said that since the king issued an order to annihilate Buddhism, the Buddha statues hadn’t stopped shedding tears.
Juqu Mengxu saw tears on the face of the statue he built for his mother, and rescinded his order.
Whether it was just the rain or a monk’s contrivance, Dharmakṣema managed to save Buddhism and Buddhist monks at Liangzhou.
While the Mount Tianti Grotto was being built, other grottoes were also under construction at various places: Northern Liang Grottoes at the Mogao Cave in Dunhuang (Grottoes 268, 272, and 275),
Changma Grottoes in Yumen (Grotto 4),
Mount Wenshu Grottoes in Zhangye (Qianfo Grotto and Wanfo Grotto),
Mati Temple Grottoes in Sunan,
and Jinta Temple Grottoes in Sunan (East Grotto and West Grotto).
Sculptors who worked on these grottoes made use of statue-making skills from Kucha and Khotan,
combined features from the Western Regions and ancient India,
and also incorporated elements of Han culture.
Eventually, Tan Yao and his men brought the statue-making skills from Liangzhou to the Central Plain, via Pingcheng, Luoyang, eventually reaching Chang’an and Tianshui.
People in ancient China, even Confucians, welcomed Buddhism.
Mati Temple Grottoes in Zhangye were originally excavated by Guo Yu, a Confucian scholar, and his students.
Buddhism and Buddhist sculpture spread from the Hexi Corridor, and continued on to the Central Plain. By the time of the Northern and Southern dynasties (420 CE -589 CE), generations of emperors had built grottoes and Buddhist temples everywhere.
Some local-born Buddhist monks travelled from the east to the Hexi Corridor, trying to bring Chinese Buddhism to the west.
From Zhu Shixing, a monk in the Three Kingdoms period, to Dharmarakṣa, Faxian, Song Yun, Huisheng, and Xuanzang, numerous monks traversed the Hexi Corridor.
Liu Sahe, a monk from Northern Wei, was travelling alone towards the direction of the sunset.
He arrived at Liangzhou, stood on a spot for a long while, before eventually pointing to a cliff in front of him and saying, “A naturally-formed Buddha statue will appear here soon.”
He also said that changes to the Buddha statue would foretell changes in the world.
86 years later, a Buddha statue did appear on the cliff.
Based on this legend, people built a temple for Liu Sahe and the stone statue, and called the temple Ruixiang (“auspicious statues”).
Instead of Buddhist statues, a stone wall was placed in the main hall of this temple.
The shape of the stone wall resembled that of a travelling monk.
Legend has it that the head of the Buddha statue suddenly fell to the ground.
Two years later, Yuwen Yong, emperor of Northern Zhou, banned Buddhism and ordered the destruction of Buddhist temples.
The Ruixiang Temple was also destroyed.
It seems that Liu Sahe’s prediction had come true.
200 years after Mount Tianti Grottoes were built, ancient China was once again united.
Emperor Yang Guang, of Sui Dynasty, inspected the Hexi Corridor. He visited the Ruixiang temple, and ordered its expansion.
He was the only emperor from the Central Plain to have personally visited the Hexi Corridor.
Buddhism might be an imported religion, but its influence in China is no less than that of the local-born Taoism. Even non-religious believers would visit Buddhist temples, partly because of the artistically pleasing Buddha statues.
(There’s a Hall of 800 Arhats in my hometown. Adults told us that you can start from any Arhat, count the number that is your age, and the Arhat statue you end up in front of will represent you. Every year we would go back there and count the Arhats. I still don’t know if there really is 800 of them.)
Another reason Buddhism remains popular in China is of course, the monks. They constantly upgrade themselves to remain relevant to modern-day society.
They know how to lure you in with pretty-as-a-picture scenery,
or with cats,
or cute monks,
Or this adorable robot monk Xian’er.
Who says religion has to be boring?